River News for the Week of December 1, 2000
SALMON SURVIVAL: Since 1992, researchers have been storing frozen sperm samples from chinook and steelhead salmon to protect Snake River salmon from extinction. The Seattle Post Intelligencer (11/26) reports that 1,826 chinook and steelhead genetic specimens are now kept at Washington State University and the University of Idaho in containers 20 times colder than a regular freezer. The plan is to thaw and use the salmon sperm as a last-ditch emergency policy against the populations going completely extinct. Fisheries managers of the Nez Perce Tribe started the Snake River salmon gene-banking effort eight years ago, which is now the largest fish sperm preservation program in the United States.
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MISSISSIPPI RIVER: A half-million gallons of crude oil spilled this week from a tanker into shellfish beds and bird sanctuaries along the lower Mississippi River south of New Orleans. CNN (11/30) reports that the area affected is about 70 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico and supports abundant wildlife, including pelicans, shorebirds, crabs, spotted sea trout, and flounder, as well as more than 100,000 wintering waterfowl. The 800-foot tanker lost power when part of the engine exploded and ran aground Tuesday night, forcing the Coast Guard to close shipping lanes on a 26-mile stretch of the river for almost a full day. Fortunately, favorable winds have helped keep the spill from out of sensitive wildlife areas, says Reuters (12/1). The 567,000-gallon spill is the largest in U.S. waters since the Exxon Valdez dumped more than 10 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in March 1989, says CNN.
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WALLA WALLA RIVER: In what is being called a landmark water sale, the Ecology Department of Washington State has purchased a large volume of water to leave in the Walla Walla River where salmon are floundering. The Tri-City Herald (11/29) reports that the state used money dedicated by the Legislature in 1999 to purchase 1,500 gallons a minute of water from a Walla Walla Valley farmer for $405,000. Previously, that water had been used to irrigate 225 acres of wheat and alfalfa seed. Washington is also working on another water buyout in the Walla Walla, much of which goes dry every summer because of irrigation withdrawals. Additionally, the state secured a conservation agreement that will "permanently protect three miles of stream-side habitat from development, an attempt to make the bank more stable and improve fish habitat." Finally, the state also announced two more deals to add water back to the Methow River in northcentral Washington. The Ecology Department still has more than $500,000 to spend on water by July.
The Walla Walla River was designated one of the nation's most endangered rivers in 1998 by American Rivers because of its low flows. According to the group, irrigated farmland has devastated the river's fish habitat, and the river's salmon are now gone and its bull trout and steelhead are near extinction. Farms divert literally all the river's flow from its channel and leave the riverbed dry. Farmfield runoff washes back into the bed carrying pesticides, fertilizers, and sediment.
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MISSOURI RIVER: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week released its final biological opinion on current Missouri River dam operations, concluding a months-long consultation process and setting the stage for recovery of troubled Missouri River wildlife and tourism-generating fishing and boating. The final opinion is the result of a formal process required by the Endangered Species Act and conducted jointly by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps is currently revising the Missouri River Master Water Control Manual, the guide used by the federal agency to set releases for six dams in eastern Montana and the Dakotas. This review of dam operations has been ongoing since 1989, but the Corps has not yet proposed reforms that would meet the needs of federally protected species. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service's biological opinion, the interior least tern, piping plover, and pallid sturgeon are threatened by dam operations that have eliminated the river's natural flow patterns. The opinion also notes that these and other species struggle to survive due to habitat loss and alteration. As a result, the biological opinion concludes in a "jeopardy" finding, meaning if the Corps fails to change dam operations appropriately, the least tern, piping plover, and pallid sturgeon are likely to go extinct on the Missouri River. To prevent this, the opinion includes several "reasonable and prudent alternatives" that are designed to assist in the recovery of threatened and endangered species. Suggested steps include a "spring rise" in water flows and lower summer flows out of Gavins Point Dam, a "spring rise" out of Ft. Peck Dam, habitat restoration, adaptive management of the river system, and intensive biological monitoring. For more information, please see www.americanrivers.org. (American Rivers press release 11/30).
According to the AP (11/30), "protection of endangered species has become the top priority in managing the Missouri River and likely will prompt the U.S. Corps of Engineers to agree to higher spring releases and lower summer flows," says a corps official. However, because of "potential flooding and threats to barge traffic posed by an altered flow, the corps suggested that it would attempt to scale back the changes recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," reports the St. Louis Post Dispatch (12/1). The corps draft implementation plan should be ready by mid-December, with a final proposal released in early February.
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KENTUCKY WATERS: Some sludge might always remain along the creeks and rivers in Kentucky below a Martin County coal slurry pond that failed last month, says the Lexington Herald Leader (11/29). Saying that cleaning up all 250 million gallons of the muddy brown goo is not feasible, officials appeared before the state Environmental Quality Commission this week to deliver the bad news. Though much of the area along Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek will eventually look much like it did before the spill, there will still be places where isolated signs of sludge will be seen, says Art Smith, one of two U.S. Environmental Protection Agency coordinators overseeing the cleanup.
Martin County Coal Corp. president Dennis Hatfield has apologized several times for the accident, but has also categorized the spill as "an act of God," reports the Lexington Herald Leader (11/30).
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POTOMAC RIVER: Mining company Mettiki Coal Corporation has applied for permits from Maryland and West Virginia to tunnel under the North Branch of the Potomac River to get at coal deposits in West Virginia. The Baltimore Sun (11/29) reports that environmentalists and regulators in West Virginia are concerned about the impact on the Potomac, a nationally treasured waterway that is still suffering from past mining abuses. Mettiki wants to expand its existing underground works beneath the river and extract about 2 million tons of the fossil fuel from the other side. So far, the Maryland Department of the Environment has received no objections from the public while it reviews the corporation's application. However, state officials intend to be especially protective of the Potomac, which flows past the nation's capital on its way to the Chesapeake Bay, says the Sun. Also, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition has objected to Mettiki's application to mine coal in that state, with concerns that a "high-quality" trout stream feeding into the North Branch could dry up as the landscape sinks after the coal is removed. The mining company has been cited three times for water pollution violations in the past five years, though it assures the public that there would be no additional acid mine drainage caused by the West Virginia operation.
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BROAD RIVER: South Carolina Electric & Gas has agreed to release more water through a dam into a three-mile section of the Broad River in South Carolina adjacent to the Columbia Canal, reports the South Carolina Herald Rock Hill (11/28). In an effort to help fish spawn and to assist canoeists and boaters who fish on the lower Broad and upper Congaree rivers, the amount of water in the river could increase up to ten times during the dry summer months. The agreement to raise the water levels is part of a new federal license the company hopes to obtain next year so that it can continue running its electric plant near the canal.
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RIO GRANDE: After four months of court-ordered mediation, several environmental groups and the city of Albuquerque and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District still cannot agree on a solution to protect the habitat for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. As reports the Albuquerque Journal (11/29), the federal water managers had been sued last year by several environmental groups, led by the Forest Guardians of Santa Fe, to protect the minnow habitat. The environmentalists have asked the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the federal government "to pursue a voluntary forbearance program as a means of providing more water in the river and protecting the habitat of the silvery minnow." Farmers are generally paid not to work or plant their fields in a forbearance program.
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HANFORD REACH SALMON: The Grant County Public Utility District says that "efforts to protect spawning chinook salmon from the fluctuating Columbia River levels near dams in southeast Washington have been successful," reports the Seattle Post Intelligencer (11/30). Protective efforts put into place two years ago have led to young fall chinook salmon populations in the Hanford Reach area reaching record levels this year. Such efforts have included changing how the seven dams in the mid-Columbia are operated to produce more stable water levels so that newly hatched salmon are not left stranded in shallow shoreline pools.
Also in Washington State, the Puget Sound Energy and Seattle City Light voluntarily agreed this week to put more water into the Skagit River to prevent salmon nests from being destroyed. This follows a story by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that chum redds were exposed after Puget Sound Energy filled its Baker River reservoir over the Thanksgiving holiday. Because the utility was operating within the legal bounds of its license when it filled the reservoir, no penalties will be levied, reports the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (12/1).
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AGRICULTURE: Iowa state environmental regulators say that phosphorus from manure is polluting Iowa waterways, and are suggesting that livestock-confinement operators may have to spread manure more thinly on fields as a result. As reports the Des Moines Register (11/30), a proposal by the state Department of Natural Resources is saying that operators will need to find more land for the spreading of their manure, since new water tests show that phosphorus pollution is a serious problem in Iowa rivers. Legislation has been proposed by the Department that would consider the phosphorus content of manure spread on land. Currently, application rates are based on how much nitrogen crops need. A phosphorus standard could possible double the amount of land needed to legally spread manure from hog confinements, says the Register.
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ALLAGASH: The state of Maine has failed to adequately protect the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, says a group of guides, environmentalists and river users, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Allagash Alliance and the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. The groups are consequently suing over a new access point on the federally designated wild and scenic waterway. The Bangor Daily News (12/1) reports that the groups filed suit this week against the Land Use Regulation Commission for approving an application for a hand-carry boat launch at John's Bridge, which river users fear would further degrade the wilderness character of the waterway. Fishermen and sportsmen support the proposed boat launch for the access it would offer those wishing to conduct day trips on the river. The river groups say that the Commission has violated its own rules for protecting remote areas of the state in granting the boat launch application, and failed to adequately consider whether alternative places to access the river were located nearby. The Commission disagrees, and says that there could be a positive effect on the river since users would be more spread out with an additional place to get in the waterway.
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ATLANTIC SALMON: More than 13,000 farm-raised Atlantic Salmon escaped into the Passamaquoddy Bay not far from the Dennys River on November 20 when a contractor's boat tore a hole in the netting of an aquaculture pen near Eastport, Maine. As reports Greenwire (12/1), the Dennys River is one of the eight rivers in Maine where the wild salmon are listed under the Endangered Species Act, which is highlighting environmentalists' concerns about the state's fish-farming industry. The farmed salmon pose a major threat to dilution of the wild Atlantic gene pool, even if only a few survive to maturity, says David Carle of the Conservation Action Project, which is why his group originally petitioned the federal government to list Atlantic salmon in 1993.
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